Southland Tales, A Look Backwards and Forwards

By Charles Evans

There exists a form of received wisdom in popular culture which can be deadly for a work of art or entertainment. Essentially, if enough people decide in advance that something is true, it becomes the de facto truth, and little can be done until a reevaluation occurs. If one occurs at all.

Such has been the case with Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Since its disastrous reception at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the “truth” about Southland Tales has been etched in stone. Kelly, overly ambitious after his success with Donnie Darko several years prior, bit off more than he could chew by attempting to create a sci-fi satire of the Bush administration, second Iraq War, reality TV culture, and the then-nascent rise of apocalyptic evangelism in America. More than a sophomore slump, Southland Tales was a complete and utter cinematic embarrassment proving Kelly to be little more than a one hit wonder whose luck with Darko was mistaken for visionary talent.

This reputation has persisted for a decade and a half, hanging over Kelly’s career to the point where it may have strangled many of his future prospects. (He’s only made one other film since: 2009’s underrated The Box). And yet, Southland Tales has grown a cult audience in the years following its release. Unlike Donnie Darko—which itself began as a film that slipped through the cracks before a rediscovery on home video—Southland has not reemerged as some pop culture behemoth, but instead taken a different route, that of a film which has found a small but loyal audience and is currently experiencing an affirming (if cautious) critical reappraisal.

Thankfully, that reappraisal has paid off in unexpected dividends, resulting in a new special edition Blu-Ray of the film from Arrow Video. The release contains two cuts of the movie: the theatrical version, as well as the work-in-progress screened at Cannes, finally allowing viewers to see the edit of Southland Tales which damned itself from the start.     

It would be an understatement to say that Southland Tales is a difficult film to describe. (Spoilers technically follow here, but given that the movie is more about the experience than the story, any outline of Southland Tales barely touches the surface).

The plot, such as it is, revolves around an alternate version of 2008 America. Following a dual nuclear attack in Texas on July 4, 2005, the GOP-controlled government uses an exaggerated version of the Patriot Act to justify spying on American citizens, turning the country into a fascist police state. With the Middle East now plunged into a third world war—sponsored by Hustler and Budweiser, no less—the disruption of traditional fossil fuels causes a severe energy shortage.

Seeking alternative sources of energy, the government turns to a German technology firm called Treer Industries, led by the mysterious Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn). Treer aims to harness the perpetual motion created by ocean currents and broadcast that energy via quantum entanglement, establishing Utopia Three, a rig off the coast of the Southland (the story’s nickname for the Los Angeles area). The energy generated by the rig, called Fluid Karma, not only can provide limitless power, but is being transmuted by von Westphalen’s company into various forms of injectable drugs which enhance psychic abilities.

As the 2008 election approaches, Republican Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson) have rolled out US-IDent, a network which tracks and monitors United States citizens via internet activity, fingerprint identification, and well-placed cameras (located everywhere up to and including the toilets at LAX). But US-IDent faces subversion in the form of the Neo-Marxists, a loosely organized radical left terrorist organization consisting of hippies and performance artists from Venice Beach who mean to rig the election in favor of the Democratic ticket. (Which in the Southland universe is, hilariously enough, the very non-radical combination of Clinton/Lieberman).

Bobby and Nana Mae Frost at the grand opening of US-IDent

Enter Boxer Santaros, played by Dwayne Johnson in one of his earliest starring roles. A famous action movie idol married to Senator Frost’s daughter Madeline (Mandy Moore), Boxer has recently gone missing in Nevada, and after several days returns to the Southland with a pronounced case of amnesia. But instead of coming home to his wife, Boxer connects with his mistress Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a former porn star currently pursuing a multi-tiered career as a talk show host, Hollywood actress, energy drink mogul, and pop singer. (She’s just recently released her new single “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime”).

Boxer and Krysta have completed the script for a sci-fi action film called The Power, in which they intend to star. The screenplay tells of a newborn child whose body houses an apocalyptic amount of energy waiting to be unleashed by farting. Boxer would play Jericho Cane, a schizophrenic police officer unsure of his own reality.

To research this role, Boxer has been allowed to ride along with Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), a member of UPU2 (Urban Pacification Unit 2), a specialized federal police force. Unbeknownst to Boxer, however, he is not riding along with Roland Taverner but with Taverner’s identical twin Ronald, a spy for the Neo-Marxists. Ronald’s job is to pose as his own brother and pretend to be a racist cop.

During the film’s final act, Boxer—now occasionally lapsing into the fictional character of Jericho Cane—is invited aboard a giant Treer zeppelin powered by Fluid Karma and hosting a massive party. There, he learns the grim truth: Treer’s generator off the coast of the Southland has been accidentally ripping holes in the fabric of time and space, altering the ocean’s currents and causing the rotation of the Earth to slow. (A fact correctly predicted in Boxer and Krysta’s prophetic screenplay). Boxer has amnesia because he drove through a wormhole in the Nevada desert and traveled sixty nine minutes back in time, which caused two Boxers to manifest, one of them dying in a subsequent explosion.

And he wasn’t alone. Driving through the wormhole with Boxer was Roland Taverner, revealed to be a veteran who became a UPU officer after returning home from the Iraq War. But unlike Boxer, Taverner’s double survived. Roland and Ronald are not twins . . . they are the same man, duplicated through space-time distortion and later manipulated by the Neo-Marxists. Ultimately, we learn that Baron von Westphalen has been funding the Neo-Marxist movement, overseeing a massive conspiracy to hobble the GOP and tip the election towards the Democrats, using Boxer and Taverner as pawns.  

Throughout all of this, the film is narrated by Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). A once-famous child actor, Abilene was drafted into the war and later disfigured in the Iraq theater by friendly fire. Roland—Abilene’s best friend at the time—inadvertently caused the accident, and since returning to the States, Taverner has been unable to forgive himself. Abilene now dwells in a boardwalk arcade where he reads the Book of Revelation, both injects and sells the drug version of Fluid Karma, and has fantasy musical numbers to “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers.

In the film’s climax, the Neo-Marxists cause riots in the streets of Los Angeles and raid the headquarters of US-IDent. The Treer mega-zeppelin, on which Boxer and many of the other characters are flying, is shot down with a rocket launcher. Meanwhile, Roland and his double come face to face, an event which we’ve been warned could cause the universe to unravel. The men reach out and grasp hands. “I forgive you,” says Roland to himself, as the two of them are consumed in bright light.

The end.

To be fair, the above description may very well sound like muddled chaos. No doubt, the storyline of Southland Tales is confusing, even borderline incomprehensible at times. But while Kelly clearly intends for there to be a concrete and complex story, the absurd and labyrinthine nature of the film, as well as its fractured depiction of a reality coming apart at the seams, lends itself to intentional perplexity. This also falls in line with the often overly convoluted nature of film noir plots, caper adventures, and Kafkaesque absurdism, all of which have some bearing here in terms of influence. 

(In Kelly’s grand scheme, the big picture of Southland Tales is actually even MORE complicated than what plays out onscreen. Accompanying the movie, three graphic novels were published to serve as prequels leading up to the main action. Just as significant as anything in the film proper, the books do a substantial amount of world-building, revealing details only alluded to in the movie, if at all. The film technically begins in media res, opening with Chapter Four and comprising the final three parts of the story. However, it’s not mandatory to read the prequel novels—which are long out of print, anyway—in order to understand Southland Tales, inasmuch as Southland Tales can be understood).*

What becomes clear after repeated viewings—and this is a film designed for repeated viewings as opposed to one easily digestible walkthrough—is that at heart the film deals with PTSD and guilt, particularly relating to war veterans. Dictating nearly the entire core of the story is Roland Taverner’s self-blame over severely injuring and disfiguring his friend Pilot Abilene.

Many of the central characters are like broken mirror versions of each other. Taverner and Boxer were each duplicated by time travel. Taverner confronts his own doppelganger. Boxer flipflops between himself and his Jericho Cane persona, who eerily resembles Roland. At the film’s climax, the left side of Roland’s face is injured in a way that recalls Abilene’s injury, and he holds a gun to his head as he considers suicide. At that exact moment on the zeppelin, Boxer is holding a gun to his own head.

Again, much of the film is driven by Roland Taverner’s guilt, almost as if the world around him is an externalization of his inner life.

The apocalyptic tone of the film might at first appear to confirm the idea that the world is going to end when Roland and Ronald join hands. The story has already revealed that society is starting to fall apart because of the deceleration of the Earth’s rotation . . . a big reason why many of the characters are behaving so strangely. And before Boxer dies aboard the mega-zeppelin, a tattoo on his back of Jesus Christ begins to bleed through his shirt, hammering home the themes from the Book of Revelation which are woven throughout the story.

But the film’s final moment feels anything but negative. With Taverner shaking the hand of his own double and saying “I forgive you,” it is a man forgiving himself, absolved of the imposed guilt which has been tormenting him. (It’s worth noting that in Abilene’s narration, there is no indication that he holds blame against Roland for the accident). It’s quite possible that what’s about to happen isn’t the destruction of mankind, but the birth of a new and better world, similar to the way the Kali Yuga precipitates rebirth in Hindu mythology. By that reading, Taverner’s absolution isn’t just self-generated, but possibly divine. Like Donnie Darko and The Box, Southland Tales is a deeply spiritual search for meaning, catharsis, and redemption in a chaotic, hostile universe.

Building from the theme of trauma, the story takes aim at the hyper-masculine expectations of W. Bush-era action films. After all, the idea of soldiers shaken by PTSD flies in the face of our imaginings of them as tough, unflappable warriors, eroding the (real world and fictional) mythology of the stoic protector of freedom. Southland Tales plays as the polar opposite of an Army recruitment commercial or a masturbatory Michael Bay military fantasy, its fictional Iraq War very much a protest against the actual conflict in Iraq.

Look no further than the characters of Taverner and Abilene. Far from gung-ho jingoistic caricatures, they are instead so deeply troubled by their past in battle to the point where they come across as permanently haunted, if not destroyed on an existential level. Hence the poignant usage of the Killers refrain “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

And casting Dwayne Johnson—the very definition of masculine—as an action star who in real life falls way short of the tough guy role he embodies, proves brilliantly ironic. When not posing as his preposterous hardboiled cop character Jericho Cane, Boxer instead turns into a frightened child whenever threatened, eyes going wide as he nervously taps his fingers. (To further solidify the spoofing of Hollywood masculinity, Jericho Cane is named after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from the movie End of Days). This is one of the first films where Johnson revealed his skill at physical comedy, a byproduct of the physicality inherent to his career as a wrestler.

On that note, another aspect sorely overlooked about Southland Tales is its sense of humor. Kelly was slammed by critics for the film’s unrealistic and occasionally bizarre dialogue, but those critics seem to have missed the joke. Some of the more memorable bits include lines such as:

“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.”

“I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.”

“And what did we do once we discovered a rift in the fourth dimension? We launched monkeys into it.”

“All the Pilgrims did was ruin the American Indian orgy of freedom.”

Indeed, Southland Takes is as much a comedy as it is drama or science-fiction. Sections of it are laugh out loud funny in their ridiculousness, keeping with the theme of reality breaking down, in addition to maintaining an absurdist streak straight out of the novels of Philip K. Dick. Kelly has in fact described his film as a combination of Philip K. Dick, David Lynch, and Andy Warhol, and that description holds up, given the movie’s deft mix of sci-fi, surrealism, satire, and pop art.

(The casting especially suggests pop art, with celebrities as diverse as Johnson, Gellar, Timberlake, Mandy Moore, and various Saturday Night Live alumni all thrown together. Director Kevin Smith also makes an appearance, as a scientist named Simon Theory whose look was clearly inspired by Philip K. Dick).**

With Arrow’s new release, it’s now possible to contrast the two versions of the film, neither of which Kelly feels are complete. The theatrical edition, released in 2007, is notably reordered from the Cannes cut, given an expositional opening which lays out the background of the story’s universe by incorporating elements and explanations (and some images) from the prequel graphic novels. (Kelly had agreed to cut fifteen minutes and reedit the film in order to get more money to complete the movie’s visual effects).

The Cannes version on the other hand, while still a rough cut, establishes itself as much more dense and enigmatic, slowly revealing the world of the story while providing an air of ethereal mystery undercut in the theatrical version by the expository prologue. Certain elements explained in the theatrical edit go unaddressed here, while others are kept more ambiguous and abstract. (Additionally, the Cannes cut reinstates a subplot involving Simon Theory and a character played by Janeane Garofalo). If there’s a great movie lurking somewhere in the theatrical version, the Cannes edition is much closer to being that film.

One standout moment in either version is Timberlake’s poor man’s Busby Berkley musical number to the Killers, him moving through his arcade while holding a beer and surrounded by backup dancers dressed as nurses. The sequence is hypnotic while still highlighting the loneliness of Private Abilene. (Supposedly this scene drew a round of applause from the otherwise alarmingly quiet Cannes audience). The mix of entertainment and melancholy perfectly encapsulates the overall tone of the movie.

There’s a cogent argument to be made about the film’s satirical nature, considering how it’s skewering a very specific time period, that being the post-9/11 Bush administration and the pre-2008 GOP. Satire so specific can date very quickly, the material rendered irrelevant as times change.

Conversely, the satire on display in Southland Tales might feel even more relevant than ever given the current cultural clime. An out of control Republican Party. Massive civil unrest. Radical leftist movements. Racist cops. Voter fraud. Emergent fascism. Environmental disaster. Nonstop media stimulation. These subjects have defined the national conversation under the Trump regime and lingering into the post-Trump era, in some ways making the film’s satire all the more immediate and cutting. 

There are few films like Southland Tales. One movie which comes to mind is David Lynch’s Dune, similar in that it’s loaded with big ideas, memorable imagery, and a sprawling cast of characters, but which never quite found a final form. (Lynch has disowned the heavily compromised theatrical version and refused to be involved with any further cuts of the film). Both pictures were considered a commercial and critical disaster at the time, though in the case of Southland Tales, Kelly passionately stands by his movie as his favorite project, unfinished though it may be.

Another film close to Southland in its uniqueness, as well as an almost violent dislike from critics and audiences, is Zack Snyder’s much maligned Sucker Punch. Meant to criticize the sexism of fanboy culture, it portrays a cast of women trapped in several layers of narrative: a baseline reality comprised of a dismal mental hospital in the 60s, followed by an extended fantasy reimagining that world as a 30s-style brothel/cabaret, followed by fantasies within that fantasy which touch on various horror and sci-fi action scenarios. No matter which world the women escape to, they are sexualized and fetishized and abused, by the men around them and by the juvenile sexist tropes found in the cliches of geek culture.

Heavily criticized as a clueless and misogynistic attempt to illustrate female empowerment while still prioritizing the male gaze, nevertheless at its center the film is an angry screed showing women imprisoned by the imagination of the movie’s own male viewers, in the end violently confronting the portion of the audience which is getting off on that very subjugation.  

While Southland Tales is different in its themes, similar to Sucker Punch it’s a bit of an unwieldy mess which at times threatens to topple over completely. But each is a fascinating and daring mess in their own right. They also mix genres in an unexpected way, up to the point of including musical numbers. And similar to Kelly, Snyder considers his film unfinished, as even his superior director’s cut is not his final preferred version, which remains unreleased. 

But perhaps the most similar film to Southland Tales—setting aside those from which it directly draws inspiration, such as Kiss Me Deadly, Brazil, and Mulholland Drive***—is a different Zack Snyder movie: Watchmen. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen too is a very dense film which crosses into satire, science fiction, and pop art, in this case eviscerating the culture of superheroes and those who worship them.

Both stories take place in an alternate history America, addressing the political issues of the time through the remove of a hyperbolic fictional lens. They each involve conspiracies fueled by a wealthy leftist megalomaniac pursuing alternative forms of energy and transportation (including zeppelins), while the world approaches supposedly inevitable apocalypse. Most importantly, the two films exhibit a genuine concern with the notion of power and how it can be misused, whether by those who wield it or those who seek it.

The power hungry Baron von Westphalen and his enigmatic girlfriend, Serpentine (Bai Ling).

In their subversion of pop imagery, the book and movie iterations of Watchmen famously depict a blood-streaked smiley face logo as a recurring symbol. Southland Tales offers a very conscious nod to this, as Pilot Abilene’s own personal symbol is a smiley face with stitches on its left side, meant to mimic his scar.

Another area where the films cross is in the use of meta-storytelling. The graphic novel of Watchmen features a comic book within the comic book: an issue of a fictional series called Tales of the Black Freighter which acts as a commentary on the larger narrative. In his “ultimate cut” of Watchmen, Snyder included this plotline as an animated film within the film, interspersed throughout the movie. Southland Tales too has its own variation, with Boxer and Krysta’s screenplay The Power directly paralleling the events happening in the outside world.

Richard Kelly has recently unveiled plans to further emphasize these meta elements with a new Southland Tales project. He hopes to adapt the prequel graphic novels into an animated film or limited series, and then shoot scenes from The Power as live action, fusing these elements with the existing movie to fully create the six chapter story he always envisioned.

Can Kelly, who hasn’t made a film in over a decade, ultimately find the funding to realize his final vision for Southland Tales? The future is uncertain, but with the movie entering a new afterlife on home video, it’s more possible now than ever.

Like Roland and Ronald grasping hands and giving way to a great bright light, a better fate might await Southland Tales, after all.

*The graphic novels unveil a tantalizing amount of background information. For example: Fluid Karma is not only the energy released by the oceanic generator, it’s furthermore the name of the organic substance that powers the rig, which is how Treer is able to turn it into a narcotic; Taverner and Abilene were under the influence of Fluid Karma as part of a military experiment when the friendly fire incident occurred; and Krysta Now was never actually Boxer’s mistress, but someone who became psychic during exposure to the space-time rift and subsequently posed as his girlfriend (after his amnesia) in order to develop her divinatory screenplay.

**The expansive cast is uniformly great, with Seann William Scott­­—at this point primarily known as Stifler from the American Pie film series—delivering an understated and empathetic performance as not one but two different versions of his character.  

***The movie makes no effort to hide its love of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Aboard the zeppelin, singer Rebekah del Rio appears as herself for a dramatic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Before this, she quite famously cameoed in Mulholland Drive (again as herself) to perform a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”

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